PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — On Sept. 28, 2016, Chief Judge William E. Smith of the U.S. District Court for the District of Rhode Island issued the court’s ruling on John Doe v. Brown University.
The ruling follows a bench trial held this summer and concludes a case in which the plaintiff, John Doe, challenged the outcome of a disciplinary process that Brown conducted in spring 2016 for a sexual misconduct complaint brought against him.
A number of claims against Brown were dismissed by the court. The judge disagreed with Doe’s allegation that the University breached its contract with him “by implementing a Title IX regime that encourages allegations of misconduct, offers accusers robust support and vigorously prosecutes complaints, while affording scant resources to the accused.” The judge disagreed that there was bias in the gender makeup of the University’s Title IX Council and denied Doe’s claim that the University should pay his attorneys’ fees.
Rather, the court’s ruling stated that while Brown’s procedures for adjudicating sexual misconduct cases are not against public policy or the law, they were applied improperly — for this reason, the court vacated the finding of Doe’s responsibility and the sanction.
The decision stated: “Although a very close call… the court finds that certain procedures Brown employed in conducting Doe’s hearing fell outside of a student’s reasonable expectations based on the Code of Student Conduct at Brown University 2014-15… and that these procedural errors likely affected the panel’s decision in Doe’s case. Accordingly, Doe is entitled [to] a new hearing that remedies these infirmities.”
From the earliest paragraphs in his 84-page ruling, the judge made clear that the court’s role was to determine whether the disciplinary process was carried out in line with Doe’s reasonable expectations based on policies in place at the time of the incident. It was not the court’s role, he said, to decide whether the court would have, in the University’s position, found Doe responsible for sexual misconduct.
“To be very clear, the court is not in any way suggesting that it would be an error for a new panel to find Doe responsible,” the ruling stated. “And if a new panel is convened and it finds him responsible, its findings will be binding… irrespective of this court’s conclusion.”
In response to the decision, Brown University has issued the statement below.
In September 2015, Brown University implemented a new policy and set of procedures to establish a clear, cohesive approach to resolving complaints of sexual misconduct. The policy followed a lengthy process of thoughtful self-assessment and study undertaken by a task force that included broad representation from the University community. The implementation of the policy and several other programmatic measures to address issues of gender-based harassment and sexual violence reflected Brown’s commitment to achieving a safe and welcoming environment for all members of the campus community and to ensuring fairness and impartiality for all parties in the investigation and disposition of reports. Given both the complexity of resolving complaints of sexual misconduct and changes in the legal and regulatory environment, we expected that our policies and procedures would be refined and strengthened over time.
This case provided an opportunity to re-examine elements of our policy and procedures. While the court found no indication of gender bias at Brown, the court’s review of this matter and subsequent ruling has provided guidance for improving upon our commitment to fairness in our procedures. We have begun to take action to address areas where – during the course of the trial this summer – the court identified procedures that could be strengthened. We have made other adjustments based on our first year of operation under the new policy and procedures.
These actions include, among others, the formal establishment of a Threat Assessment Team, removal of the word “manipulation” from our definition of consent, adjustments to hearing procedures and updates to the appeals process after a determination of responsibility and/or sanction. Many of these actions are reflected in adjustments to our policy and procedures made on Sept. 2, 2016. Brown’s updated policy is available at www.brown.edu/about/administration/title-ix/policy. The updated complaint process is available at www.brown.edu/about/administration/title-ix/complaints.
Sexual misconduct cases are among the most important but challenging disciplinary cases for any university. We believe it is essential to investigate and resolve complaints in a prompt, fair and impartial manner, and the changes implemented reflect our commitment to ensuring that our disciplinary process is fundamentally fair and balances our obligations to both complainants and respondents.
The court’s ruling means that John Doe remains an enrolled student at Brown. While Doe is not taking courses at Brown this semester, the judge’s decision provides him with the option to return to campus in the semesters ahead, should he choose to do so. The University will make a determination on what, if any, further action is needed should he indicate his intent to return to campus.
Brown University has taken a leadership role among colleges and universities in recent years in confronting issues related to sexual misconduct.
The September 2015 implementation of Brown’s unified policy on sexual violence, harassment and misconduct — along with new procedures for filing, investigating and resolving complaints — grew out of a comprehensive study conducted by the University’s Sexual Assault Task Force. The joint faculty, student and staff task force began its work in May 2014.
Key recommendations from that group, issued in April 2015, included unified policies, an investigator model for complaints, and creation of an advisory council to monitor progress at Brown in building strong procedures to address issues of sexual misconduct.
In 2015, the University established a Title IX Office to manage issues surrounding the anti-discrimination law, which establishes guidelines for colleges regarding sexual and gender-based violence, and to oversee implementation of the Sexual Assault Task Force’s recommendations. The office also oversees a suite of annual training sessions required for all members of the campus community, along with educational opportunities on issues related to sexual misconduct.
A Title IX Oversight and Advisory Board — three faculty, three staff, three undergraduates, two graduate students and a medical student — meets at least twice a year to review programs, progress and statistics about sexual violence. It is charged with conducting a formal review of the University’s progress every three years and will meet annually with the president to discuss the committee’s work.